H ERMIT was growing tired of his shell.
He had lived in this one all of three weeks, carrying it everywhere he went. Though he never traveled very far, he spent much of his time walking here and there under water that was not very deep. If, as sometimes happened, he got left on the shore by the tide, he rambled around in the first pool he came to. It did very well for a while.
Perhaps his body was feeling a bit squeezed as your foot does if your shoe is rather tight. Perhaps his shell had been scraped thin in places by being dragged over so many pebbles. Perhaps Hermit merely wanted a change.
However that may be, Hermit became interested when he saw a pretty moon-snail shell lying empty near him. He crawled up to it cautiously. He touched it with his antennæ, or feelers. It was smooth and whole. Then he rolled it over and over with his claws until it rattled on the stones. Next he pushed his large claw into it, making sure that nothing already lived in the place he wanted to use as a home.
At last he began to move. Catching the shell with one claw, he pulled his body out of the old shell and stuck it tail-first into the new one. For a moment he vanished inside. Then he came to the door and threw out some sand that had drifted into the empty shell. He had to do that several times before the shell was perfectly clean. Then he settled the soft part of his body into the whorls of his new house, stretched his legs through the doorway, and began to walk.
Hermit tucked his body into the new, smooth shell and walked away.
Soon Hermit quickened his pace. He was actually running, bumping his shell on pebbles, and scrambling over bits of sea lettuce. He waved his antennæ to and fro and wriggled the tiny feet near his mouth. Hermit was excited. He sensed that there was good food near by. He could not see it. He could not smell as you can. But he could catch a taste of food even while he was some little distance away. So he hurried along on the four long, slender, jointed legs he used for traveling, in an attempt to reach the food in time.
At the very edge of Holiday Shore, Hermit found his picnic dinner. It was a clam served on a half-shell. A man, digging in the sand, had broken its shell with his sharp spade. He threw it into the shallow water so that animals might find it there and have a meal.
How they did rush to this feast! First some wriggling green worms arrived from a very near spot. They tore bits of meat from the clam with their sharp, hook-shaped jaws. They squirmed and pushed with their many legs, trying to keep their greedy neighbors away.
Next came half a dozen little, rough snails that had been crawling rather near. They crowded in among the worms to get their share of clam meat. Then came the hungry Hermit in his new, smooth shell.
His table manners were all right for a hermit crab but no one could call them polite. He pushed the snails and worms aside. With his largest claw he tore off a piece of meat that was much too large for his little mouth. Instead of getting out of the way of the other picnickers, he sat next the clam and tore his piece into strips small enough for his jaws to take care of.
He ate so very fast that his stomach was soon full. Yet he still held a piece of meat. It was quite too good to throw away. Holding it in the small legs near his mouth, he walked slowly into deeper water. Twice he stopped and tried to eat, but his mouth was so full that he could not cram in another crumb. Finally he let the meat drop and sat down in the shade of a stone.
Hermit was careful to keep himself clean. Now that he had had a good meal, he took time for his toilet.
For almost an hour Hermit sat by the stone, cleaning his hard, spiny skin. He used his large right claw and then his left. He scraped and pulled tiny plants from his back and legs. He polished his long, jointed antennæ and the two stalks that held his eyes.
Hermit was not wasting time when he worked so hard to get himself clean. If he had not pulled those tiny plants off, they would have grown into long streamers of seaweeds. Then they would have bothered him when he crawled, and would have prevented him from drawing back into his shell when something dangerous came near. It would have been hard for him to escape some creature that was hungry for crab meat.
When he was shiny and clean, Hermit felt ready for more vigorous exercise. A fight would do! He walked slowly about the bay until he met another hermit crab who was also eager to fight.
Hermit stopped and waved his claws. The other crab stopped and waved his. Then they ran toward each other, their shells rattling on the stones. They hit each other with their claws; pinched feelers and legs; pulled, rolled, and wrestled among the seaweeds. Once Hermit was on top, pulling at the other crab's legs. In a moment his opponent got a firm hold and threw him head-over-heels. Then Hermit pinched one of the other's eye stalks, and the crabs pulled apart to get new holds.
It was then that Hermit made his mistake. In backing off to get a new, fierce run, he rolled backward over a stone. The thump on his shell startled him so much that he did not guard against attack.
At once his opponent ran up, reached inside Hermit's shell house, caught one of his tender hind legs, and began to pull. After three or four jerks, Hermit let go his hold on his protecting shell and was thrown out among the seaweeds.
Hermit was now in real danger. If one of his legs had been pulled off that would not have mattered too much. He could have grown a new one when he next shed his skin. But now the whole delicate part of his body was bare. If his thin, tender skin were injured, he probably would die. That was why it had been important for him to brush all the gritty sand out of the shell before he moved into it. And now he had lost that shell!
However, you need not worry about Hermit. The other crab did not try to hurt him. Instead, he turned his attention at once to the empty shell. He looked it over and felt it with his claws and antennæ. Then he took a firm hold of it and with a few swift motions moved out of his own snail shell into Hermit's.
Why did he make this change? Nobody knows. His own shell was just as good as the one he took away from Hermit. In fact, it was a better fit for he was larger than Hermit, and he looked very crowded indeed as he squeezed himself into Hermit's shell.
Do you suppose that when he had made his change, the crab left his deserted shell for Hermit? Well, he did not. That would have been a fair trade but it would not have been a crablike thing to do. You may recall that Hermit earlier in the day had taken more meat than he could eat and greedily carried it away. Just now the victor crab did not lose interest in his old shell, although he no longer needed it. He guarded this empty shell, waving his big claws fiercely when Hermit tried to get near it.
Thus they sat for more than half an hour. Hermit hid his bare body in a crack between two rocks. Each time he reached for the empty shell, the other crab frightened him back.
While they were quarreling, a third crab came near, waving his claws in a signal to fight. Hermit's opponent ran to attack. Here was Hermit's chance. He came at once out of the crack and climbed into the empty shell for which he had waited so long.
What do you suppose he did then? Instead of slipping quietly away, he ran to the two quarreling crabs and began to take a hand in their fight!
During this combat, no one was pulled from his shell. The fighters wrestled and tumbled about until suddenly one of them ran away. Then the others stopped struggling and walked off as if not a thing had happened.
As a matter of fact nothing unusual had happened. Indeed, Hermit seemed to enjoy wrestling matches, and they were very common affairs. Perhaps fighting was his way of getting part of his daily exercise.
Here comes another boxer—the little green crab that dwells among rocks. He does not need a snail shell to protect him, for his whole body is covered with hard, tough skin that makes a shell of his own. He has two pinching claws and eight other legs. He threatens you when you pick him up, and tries his best to nip your fingers the moment you put him down.
Watch him run sidewise to the nearest crack between two rocks. Drop him into a pool and he will find some place there to hide. Soon, however, he will be out again ready to meet another green crab. Both will wave their claws and scramble up to attack. Like Hermit, they will push and pinch until they are tired. Then they will sidle off to enjoy their dinners.
Two green crabs wave their claws at each other ready to start a fight.
What do they eat? Watch one of the green crabs as he crawls up to a frond of sea lettuce. He picks off little bits with his claws and puts them daintily into his mouth. Meanwhile his neighbor finds an old shell, covered with a filmy growth of plants. He turns it over slowly with one claw, picking off pieces which he eats in the same manner as the other crab nibbles sea lettuce.
In that tide pool over there is still another crab. His shell is yellowish spotted with brown. It is short and very wide, and his legs are fringed with hairs. He is twice as big as the little green crab and his pincer claws are twice as strong.
This is the rock crab. If you watch as you walk along Holiday Shore, you may find some of his brothers buried up to their eyes in sand, for they often rest in a sandy bed when they are not eating plants and soft animals in the tide pools.
A crab does not drag its tail behind the rest of its body where you can see it as the crab walks. It curls its tail under its body, making an armored pouch. In this pouch Mother Crab fastens her eggs. They hatch into little swimming animals less than one-tenth of an inch long. They have big dark eyes and long tails. They swim by jerking jointed affairs that some day will form parts of their mouths.
As a baby crab grows, its legs appear just in front of the tail. Each time the baby outgrows its tail, it crawls out of its cover with a new one. Then one day the little creature seems to have convulsions. It is not really ill, however. It is merely molting by crawling out of its skin in a more crablike shape. Its eyes still are very large, but its tail is now small and its first pair of legs have tiny pincers at their tips.
After a few days, the baby sheds its skin once more and begins to crawl instead of swim. After this it changes shells only twice a year until it becomes a full-grown crab. Then it must keep the same shell as long as it lives. If you hunt among the tide pools, you will find some very old crabs. You can tell which they are because plants and barnacles have grown on them since they got their last new coat.
Does the shore where you like to go for holidays lie on the Pacific coast? If it does, you will not find rock crabs or their little, fighting, green relatives.
When you look in cracks and under bunches of seaweed, you will find many small purple crabs whose shells are spotted with green. You may wade in salt-water sloughs and find hundreds of little yellow crabs that run sidewise across the mud and try to pinch your fingers. If you attempt to pick them up, they will run away, just as the crabs do in New England.
You will also find many hermit crabs on a Western shore. Some of them that are very small live in little red or green shells that they find for their shelters. Others are bigger than most of the hermits living on the Atlantic coast. Some have their legs, claws, and even their heads covered with sharp hairs or spines. These hermits are striped with red, blue, and white, and are very pretty as they crawl about in brightly colored shells.